Times Theater Writer

Ever spend a long evening with friends discussing the nature of truth? Then you know what those evenings are. Long. Their conclusions? Inconclusive.

A panel trying to define documentary theater Thursday at the Ensemble Studio Theatre predictably ran into the same trouble, but not until torrents of words had fueled the passions, visions and pet theories of the opinionated, qualified nine-member panel.

This was the first public event at the Ensemble's new quarters on North Oxford Avenue (former home of the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre) and moderator Rena Down called it when she suggested, at the start of the longtable discussion, that there are as many definitions of documentary theater as there were panelists. She might have included everyone else in the packed house as well.

It was that kind of evening.

Documentary theater, Down pointed out, fundamentally "draws its dialogue from primary sources (court transcripts, interviews, letters, etc.); it has a strong point of view; it is of importance to the community it reaches." No contest there. What followed was much more heated and much less clear.

Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, with such documentary theater pieces under his belt as "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer" and "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," kicked things off by saying that "theater of fact helps me come to grips with the way we are." Acknowledging the unmanageable size of the umbrella under discussion and the value of poetry in theater as an illuminator of ideas, he conceded an interest "in how to take the processes through which we live and turn them into art."

Frank Condon, associate artistic director of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and co-author of its "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial," traced his interest in docudrama to "a personal love of history." Assailing politicians as revisionists and defending artists as "trying to tell the truth," he then conceded that "Chicago Conspiracy" was an edited and reshaped version of that truth: "In 5 1/2 months of transcripts, we took out the boring parts and rearranged sequences."

"All documentary theater is a perversion of the truth," said the Taper's Madeline Puzo, producer of Jack Henry Abbott's "In the Belly of the Beast." "Truth and fact are different things. They're even different from the issues. The danger of the form is its ability to reshape events. The main attraction is its quality of bearing witness."

"I think of a different kind of responsibility, a responsibility to the audience," said Doris Baizley, creator of "Jump Street," a 1977 piece written and performed by prison inmates, who said she'd found "Belly of the Beast" too manipulative to be honest and promptly became the evening's most picked-upon dissenter.

"I (want) to see real-life concerns," she said, "not a literary piece, not what an author thinks."

Even the documentary theater's roots were wildly disputed. Some liked to think of it as born full-blown in the 20th Century, while playwright Donald Freed ("Inquest," "Secret Honor") placed its "very vulgar origins" in Homer's "Iliad" ("The medium was the identity of the race") and "Oedipus" ("We see it as a paradigm of myth and drama, but 75% of the references are considered allusions to fact ").

"In the 20th Century," he expounded, "when statistics have become our myths, myth itself poses as fact. It becomes political whenever there is official censorship, and finds its way around it to make contact with its waiting audience. The official lies have violence behind them. Our lies stand naked."

And as if that weren't enough to argue about for one evening, Susan Franklin Tanner, who runs the Theatreworkers' Project with unemployed steel workers, injected yet another concern: finding the right documentary form, so that a theater by non-performers accurately reflects their lives and not what the project's director (herself) perceives them to be.

This concern was echoed by Victoria Ann-Lewis, co-producer of "Tell Them I'm a Mermaid" and "Who Parks in Those Spaces?" She's been looking for a form with which to inform the public about the physically disabled.

"What attracted me to theater was poetry, so why did I end up in documentary theater? . . . I had polio as a child and no one wanted to train me as an actress!" She entered "by the back door," through the socially aware political theaters that would have her.

Bringing up the rear, entertainment attorney Frank Gruber ran down a list of basic legal issues that beset historical/political plays. And commentator Paul Lion, carrying around his own voluminous academic dissertation of the genre ("The Bible," he called it), summed things up by stating that documentary theater "makes the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar (or was it the other way around . . . ?) and that the people who write it "never intended to be objective. It is political, provocative and partisan."

No one spent much time debating how the elusive nature of "truth" changes from decade to decade, depending on who the new friends and enemies are. But no matter. Finally, a bright young member of the audience voiced what had long become obvious:

"When you start with the theater," he said, "you start with a lie. It ain't real. It's a setup. But it's the lie that tells the truth."

And the question remains: what-truth-whose-truth, which goes a long way to muddy the issue and prove in the end that we only hear what we fear--or want--to hear.

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